In today’s China, any Chinese person can be picked off the street, say, on the way to the supermarket, and be immediately turned into a slave for up to three years without legal procedure. This has happened to hundreds of thousands of people who practice Falun Gong and vanished into China’s vast system of labor camps.
There are between 200,000 and 2 million Falun Gong adherents held in China’s vast system of detention centers and labor “re-education” camps. Outdoors in Siberia-like weather of northeastern China winters or in the suffocating heat of unventilated rooms filled with fumes of glue and feces, detainees work up to 20 hours of labor a day. Those who refuse are beaten, tortured, or starved.
Many of the products they make – Christmas tree lights, toys, chopsticks - are sold to us in America, Europe, and Australia.
Making toys amidst torture in a Beijing labor camp
Especially since late 2007, consumers of low-priced “Made in China” products now recognize the long-term costs of such goods - dangerous lead toys, Chinese food product scares, related rising unemployment rates at home and trade deficits have all made headlines.
But perhaps the most severe price of all is often ignored - modern slavery is alive and well in China.
Slavery is not limited to the well-documented sweatshops in which teenagers work under horrible conditions and physical abuse in gated communities while getting paid close to nothing. This is a different kind of slavery that involves people who are prisoners of conscience – they were arrested for their beliefs or for speaking their minds and turned into slaves.
They get paid nothing for laboring in Chinese gulags. If they leave the camp alive, they are among the more fortunate.
When Jennifer Zeng was imprisoned in Beijing’s Xin’an Labor Camp, she and worked long hours making toy rabbits for Beijing’s Mickey Toys Co. Ltd, a project reportedly subcontracted from Nestle. After she was released and returned home to Australia, she was shocked to find the toys she had made being sold on store shelves there.
“The processing fees went to the labor camp. We didn't get anything,” Zeng said. “Usually we began work at 5 o'clock in the morning and worked until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning the next day. Sometimes, we had to work overtime; otherwise we could not finish the job. I was so exhausted that I could not count clearly from 1 to 9. Long hours of intensive work and severe lack of sleep made me feel for a long period of time, that the only thing I needed in my life was sleep.”
Zeng’s dramatic story is described in her book Witnessing History, the most notable autobiography written by a Falun Gong practitioner to date.
Canadian Mr. Lin Shenli was forced to make soccer balls by hand in a Jiangsu province labor camp. A large section of his chest and buttocks began to bleed and ulcerate from other intensive manual labor. Throughout, labor camp staff tried to force Lin to renounce his beliefs. There are literally thousands of known cases like these.
The Clearwisdom website has compiled a collection of vivid, first-hand accounts of life in these labor camps and the range of products Falun Gong detainees are forced to make there.
The full report can be read here. One testimony tells of the “sanitary chopsticks” produced at this Daxing County labor camp in Beijing:
The chopsticks to be packed were piled on the floor arbitrarily and often stepped on by workers. The inmates’ job was to put the chopsticks into paper coverings labeled by the Department of Sanitary and Epidemic Prevention, though the inmates had not gone through any measures of epidemic prevention or sanitary conditions themselves. Many of them had skin diseases, scabies outbreaks, and some were drug addicts or diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases. The payment for the contracted forced labor became income for the policemen at the labor camps.
For general information about China’s system of reeducation through labor, see Human Rights Watch’s report: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/china-98/laojiao.htm